Campus Overload Live with Jenna Johnson: Applying with a video essay

Jan 06, 2011

Campus Overload's Jenna Johnson chronicles national college news, drinking fads, admissions buzz and the latest exploits of interns on her blog each day. In her live chat, she answers your questions about life on campus -- and life off campus, too.

Jenna will be joined by Andrew Flagel, Dean of Admissions and Associate Vice President for Enrollment Development at George Mason University, to discuss how the college application process is changing. George Mason currently allows students to < a href="">submit their essays in video format.

Welcome! Earlier this week I wrote a story about colleges that allow applicants to send in video essays to explain who they are and why they want to attend. To write the story, I watched lots and lots of student You Tube videos and interviewed several admissions officials -- including Dean Flagel at George Mason University.

Dean Flagel and I are here for the next hour to answer all of your questions about video essays, admissions and anything college related.

Be warned: He's kind of funny.

Hello folks!  I'm the Dean of Admissions and Associate Vice President for Enrollment Development at George Mason University, which I humbly describe as, “The greatest institution in the history of mankind, and will be as long as I work here.”

In my spare time I write a feature blog on I've been in college admissions for more than 20 years, but I'm told I'm cranky enough for twice that long.

Along with being Dean of Admissions and Associate Vice President, I also teach in the Department of Communication, direct the Bachelor of Applied Sciences and I'm Executive Director of the Washington Journalism and Media Conference and the Washington Youth Summit on the Environment. Previously I was Director of Admissions at the Flint campus of the University of Michigan, served as Director of Admissions and College Counseling for the Congressional Youth Leadership Council and as an Assistant Director of Admissions at the George Washington University. I have an undergraduate degree in philosophy and psychology and a Master of Arts in education from GW; his PhD in education is from Michigan State University.

As me pretty much anything :-)

I think video essays are a great idea. But are there any other options to posting them on YouTube? Seems that every other part of the admissions process is private. Even with YouTube's privacy features, you are still asking a student to sign up with a public company with which you have no formal relationship. Thanks for the excellent forum topic!

Absolutely true that Mason's process indirectly supports YouTube by requiring sign up.  Of all the companies and processes we looked at, this gave the most individual student control.  A student can choose, by the way, to submit their video to us through the YouTube channel and NOT have it be public - that is entirely under their control.  they can also ask us directly to remove access to the public at any time.

Dean Flagel, your counterpart at the College of William and Mary ( Dean Henry Broaddus) has raised some questions about allowing students to submit You Tube videos. He worries that it opens up one small part of the extremely confidential application process for all the world to see. I know the two of you debate this a lot -- what's your stance?

Henry seems to think that confidentiality is some kind of primary pillar of the admissions process.  I agree, from the standpoint of keeping information confidential on the part of colleges.  But I also believe that students own this process and should be able to share their own information, if they choose to do so.  I think there are more and less positive ways to do so, but it seems to me the mechanisms and controls in place for the video applications are entirely consistent with student's perceptions of protecting their rights.

@iamsauerkraut writes: "some of those essays are ridiculous; kidlet decided not to apply to #NYU due to multiple esoteric essay requirement." Are some college essay prompts too wacky? Do some colleges need to take themselves (and their applicants) more seriously?

You are so right!  I actually picked several of the schools to which I applied because they had FEWER essay questions.

Some colleges actually believe they are better off having weird and more questions as it makes them look more prestigious and gets them MORE applications.  Strangely, there is some data to support that theory, so you can assume you will continue to see wacky essay questions.  By the way, our video essay is entirely optional.

And, now that I mentioned it, we make test scores optional too.  Maybe I'm too nice.  Nah. 

Some colleges are notorious for giving students funky, original questions to answer. Often they do so because they want to attract the type of student who would be interested in answering such questions -- but it doesn't always work that way.

Here are a couple of unique ones out there this year...

Tufts University:  "Use an 8.5 x 11 inch sheet of paper to create something.  Blueprint your future home, create a new product, draw a comic strip, design a costume or a theatrical set, compose a score or do something entirely different.  Let your imagination wander. " (This is completely optional.)

University of Chicago: "Dog and Cat. Coffee and Tea. Great Gatsby and Catcher in the Rye. Everyone knows there are two types of people in the world. What are they?"

St. Mary's College of Maryland: "You are about to write your future college roommate a letter. Please provide the roommate with a personal story that will give him/her some insight into your personality."

I would love to hear about other questions floating out there!

I'm still a bit amazed that the video essays seem like a big deal.  Most colleges accepted student videos all the way back in the 80's...although those tended to be VHS and BETA!  Is it just the public aspect?  Will more of you start using these, or do you still want (ugh) individual intereviews?

I think the "big deal" is that colleges are setting up formal channels for students to submit these videos -- they use to be (mostly) unsolicited, now they are solicited. Plus, now lots of people (like me) get to watch them instead of just admissions staffers at reading season movie nights!

What is a technology you can envision colleges using beyond video?

Obviously social media, from facebook to Twitter, have become increasing tools for recruitment.  It's hard to imagine them being use for the admissions process, although many express concerns that they can have a negative impact.  I got a great tweet from the associate dean at UVA last night that a student begged her to follow him and his tweets were filled with cursing and all about driking alchohol.  What a huge idiot!

What is the case for not using video for submissions? Aren't admissions committees busy enough already?

actually admissions committees are bombarded by requests to meet with individual applicants.  By permitting our applicants to express themselves through video, and by making the video such an integrated part of the application that we can easily view them when making our decisions, we actually save time.

Dear Dean Flagel, Though the campus has exploded in recent years and the Admissions office boasts about the campus being a "great on campus community," I still find that many students both commuters and on campus students LEAVE for the weekends. Why do you think this is, and what could be done to create a more unified on campus community. Interviews with students suggest many students leave the school on the weekends, and many on campus students transfer to other schools after their first year due to campus police as being over bearing, Housing and Residence Life as being underperforming to stringent on student drinking, and the lack of campus parties - what is your take on this?

Great question.  I started my career at GW back in the 80's and we had the exact same question.  With SO MUCH to offer in DC, and access to the entire east coast, mid-Atlantic region, I think there is bound to be some off campus draw every weekend - in fact, if not I'd wonder why our students weren't taking advantage of the area.  At the same time, I love coming to Mason on weekends and visiting with the fraternity and sorority I advise and seeing their events, or stopping by the bands or a movie on friday nights in the JC, or hitting a concert at the Patriot Center or the Center for the Arts...what was the questions?  If anything, I think there is often SO MUCH going on that its hard to get a huge population at any ONE event.  What I think you'll see evolve, however, is some mode signature events to join Homecoming and Mason Day, like the huge GBAY student auction in Feburary

Thank you so much for such a thoughtful chat. As an admissions officer at a prestigious private institution of higher learning, I like the video essay very much. I get a look at the applicant's personal trappings, and with that a sense of whether the student will fit in at our school. If a kid films from his part-time job as a dishwasher, standing next to his 1978 Ford Pinto, well then, how is he going to come across when alumni and other benefactors consider donating to our school? If we accept this applicant, how will future applicants from Phillips Exeter-level schools see him on our campus? More importantly, how will their PARENTS react? I don't have to worry about the kid from McLean or Potomac, but the "ambitious" kid from Anacostia will certainly drive away the kids we really want to be attracting. It's a tough balancing act, and the video essay gives us another tool in our toobox.

It's a really interesting take to think about how other students will perceive the video applicants, and whether they want to be "in a club" with those students.  Mason is SO diverse that I think we sidestep that problem, but I suspect that for campuses where the student population tends to be a big more narrow this can cut both ways.  An all white, upper income set of video applicants could turn off diverse applicants, while an applicant from a blue collar background might be a turn off to the applicant from Exeter.  I think for us most students that want Mason WANT that kind of diversity, and if not we're probably not a great match, so it's less of an issue as long as our video applicants stay as diverse as our enrollment.

What is your stance on George Mason still being considered a Tier 3 school?

It's entirely correct, if you use the US News measurement scale.  Bear in mind thattheir ranking is DESIGEND to keep a small set of schools on top, and that's mainly about MONEY, especially how much you spend.  Older less efficient schools get moved way up on that scale - no offense meant (well maybe a little).  so yes, by that measure we're 3rd tier, but we're also consistently named among the top up and coming schools - the first year of that "Schools to Watch" ranking we were named the top in the country.  So, for now, I really like the US News rankings :-)

I totally and completely agree with you about Mason, Mr. Flagel. I am thoroughly enjoying my time there :) Such a wonderful school!

Thanks!  You are clearly brilliant.  So glad I admitted you!

If not already, would different departments in Mason's graduate school be open to video essay submissions? If so, have you heard any word in regards to this?

Interesting!  We haven't had the discussion.  I suspect the answer would vary widely by discipline, but certainly worth exploring! thanks!

As Jenna pointed out, we've been getting unsolicited videos in admission offices for years. Are you finding the ones you're getting these days to be different from the ones we got on tape back in the day? What's different about them?

actually, many of them really take me back to my early days in admissions.  Some are so genuine and heartfelt, it's really great.  of course, production has chnaged when every student with a macbook can add music and special effects, so there's certainly a production difference, and access to the means to make a video is so MUCH wider than it was before.

Do you think Elle Woods inspired universities to start submitting video applications? Or had they been doing that before "Legally Blonde"?

HA!  Jenna brought that up in her blog but it got cut from her article - I suspect becase the WAPO demographic doesn't remember Elle - maybe Risky Business reference would have been better.

No I think the evolution towards use of YouTube has a lot more to do with student pressure to provide greater access to personalizing the admission process than it does to the movie, with all do credit to Ms. Witherspoon - who I head has a new boyfriend...

How many students at Mason actually partake in campus activities? I've been to basketball games, fraternity events, and more at your school but find the campus grounds to be very desolate - even on the weekends. Of a school of 30,000+ students ... where are most of the students? Fyi, my trips to Mason weren't during finals week either!

Try ANY of the DC schools on the weekends - add a huge concert hall, three massive athletic complex (complexes?) the Patriot Center, and three student get A LOT of different options in addition to all the city has to offer (bear in mind we also have a campus in Arlington, another in Prince William, and have a joint site with the National Zoo in Front Royal).  With a diversity of students comes a diversity of activity  - but stop by Greek week or Homecoming or Mason Day  - or even our massive dodgeball game that set a world record!

In the comments section on my story, a few people raised questions about how video essays might lead to beautiful people having an easier time getting into college. (We all remember that scene from "Legally Blonde" where character Elle Woods submits a video essay to Harvard Law.) But, seriously, how do you make sure this doesn't lead to discrimination of any sort?

the question of keeping personal bias out of the admission process is crucial and an ongoing challenge.  I'm open to suggestions!  Although generally I find admissions officers tend to lean more towards genuine students with enthusiasm than towards a particular look -at least with schools without a particular look!


The problem with GMU is that you're admitting the wrong kinds of students. You admit students who want to work part-time at home, or have other "financial responsibilites" that preclude them from staying on campus and building a life there. You need to stop looking at "class rank" and "GPA". Market yourself to the slacker 25%of the kids at public high schools in high-end places like Potomac, MD and Scarsdale, NY. Let their parents know that they'll get the best resume polishing and "enhancement" if they come to GMU, assuming said parents are willing to pay full out-of-state freight. Do that, and you'll have students who will boost your resources in these budgetary times, and can afford to STAY on campus and create a real social life that will bring in other high-end students over time.

AHHH - that's what I'm doing wrong.  More slackers, fewer go getters.  Roger that.  We'll take it under advisement...but I suspect a couple of other institutions have the market on that population pretty effectively cornered ;-)

How much do you expect tuition prices to be increasing this upcoming academic year?

It's an incredibly hot topic and one our Board is actively engaged in.  I know that VCU increased 27% (yes, you read that right!) least year, and Mason gets less per student from the state than any other doctoral institution, so with the ending of the federal stimulus money colleges either have to grow tuition or cut - and unfortunately cutting usually means bigger classes and slower time to graduation at  the schools that are already the most efficient in the state. 

Thank you, Private School Admissions Officer, for addressing my concerns about my son's college search. I don't want him at a place that bends over backwards for "diversity" and seeking the "best" competition. My son is a customer, and should be treated with the full respect he deserves given the FULL tuition and generous DONATIONS I will be providing as part of his admissions package. The last thing I want to see is some set of gardener's kids taking his A's, forcing him down the curve. I want someplace where the professors understand who butters their bread, so to speak. Here's a hint: it's not the kid who's collecting government money to "diversify" the campus.

Actually, we don't have to ANYTHING to diversify our campus - it's already that way.  But I have no idea why you think the garderner's kids are less qualified than yours.  If you are an indication they are likely to be more pleasant.  I select the students that are MOST academically qualified...whatever their family background. 

Assuming the applicant doesn't wear a total mask, a video essay will make it impossible for the applicant to submit a color-blind application, or in some cases to conceal blatant gayness, etc. This strikes me as a not necessarily desirable situation, not matter how committed to non-discrimination the college's admissions folks may think they are.

Sure, some colleges now let students express themselves through video -- but this is not the first time that admissions officials have ever seen their applicants!

Lots and lots of applicants do campus tours and meet with the admissions staff. Lots and lots of applicants share very personal stories and life experiences in their essays.

So I can only imagine that non-discrimination policies and practices that are already in place will continue to be applied to these videos.

What makes a video stand out? Is there anything in particular? Humor, creativity, strong editing, etc.? What are some of the more memorable videos you remember?

Well, I'm watching these videos purely for fun and don't have the grave task of admitting or denying students entrance to the school of their dreams...

Just like how everyone seems to write the exact same college essay, you see a lot of the same videos. But the best videos that I have seen are based around very original idea -- while still communicating a genuine message about the student. 

Here are a few from GMU that stood out to me:

An Alphabet of Reasons


Song about GMU

Also: Spend time on your video. Write a thoughtful script. Ask your parents and friends for feedback. Film it a few different times. Try to learn some new video skills. Oh, and have fun!

For me, it's the videos that are most genuine and honest more than any humor or flashiness.  Creativity can be a two edged sword- one of my reviewers found a video that I thought was really fun really "creepy."  Another guy was hilarious - just to me apparently.  Best is to be honest and share information about yourself and why you want to be at our school and why we want to have you here...the same for your written essay

How many applicantions are actually read through by an admissions counselor? I work at an admissions office and some over achieving students are sometimes automatically accepted without review of the application.

It was that way when I came to Mason in 2001.  Since then, we read EVERY application.

What if an applicant doesn't want to submit a video, for whatever reasons? Would that potentially harm his/her chances for acceptance?

Right now the video essays are only formally accepted by a few schools -- and it's always optional.

At George Mason, it's an optional extra. At Tufts University, it's an optional extra. At St. Mary's College, a video can take the place of a formal essay -- but it's one of many options.

And several admissions officials told them that these videos are a very small part of the process. They hardly ever make or break a student's chances of getting in.

Dean F, what do you think?

not at all.  Most of our applicants, and admitted students, did not submit videos

What are you doing to alleviate the negative persona of Mason around the NoVa community. A majority of NoVa's wealthiest do not want their children to attend George Mason. Would you send your children to George Mason, if they were accepted to better schools like UVA or VaTech?

I think better is obviously relative.  I LOVE the DC area and doubt I'd be happy at all in Charlottesville or Blacksburg - and our steady stream of transfer applications from down state seem to align with that.  Changing embedded local opinions is always hard, as is encouraging competitive students to stay close to home.  I was with Michigan for four years - obviously an elite school but many of the best local students leave...partially I suspect to go somewhere warm.  Brrrrr

Here's another question that I keep hearing from people discussing my story: Do video essays turn college admissions into an episode of "American Idol" or "Road Rules"?

I hope not, I hate reality TV.  I much prefer Madmen or Pretty Little Liars.

But to your question - I don't think there is any voting or public sentiment element (American Idol) but there is not doubt that the admissions process is competitive, and maybe making that more transparent and public is a good thing.  Maybe.  Maybe, however, it should be a show.  Now, can we think of a charismatic dean to star in it?  Hmmmmm

Seeing from the above comments about campus community and only about 5500 students living on campus - where do the other majority of students live?

The majority of our students live within a five mile radius of the cmapus where the bulk of their courses take place.  Obviously this gets denser the closer you get to campus.  This is pretty consistent for schools in major urban and suburban areas, or schools in rural areas that have strong off campus housing options

How important are these videos when the adcoms are making decisions? Are they just entertainment? If I had a great video, would it make up for a bad essay or a bad grade?

they are not nearly as important as your grades - about equal to scores (if you submit them) and written essays.  They can be entertaining.  So can written essays.  they also be...not entertaining.  trust me.

Why are off campus parties related to your standing with the university? Such as having hearings with Housing and Residence Life members to evaluate your punishment? Isn't getting in trouble with Police sufficient enough?

Good timing, I'm actually working on a story right now about Georgetown University and its neighbors, who aren't so fond of their young partying neighbors...

Most colleges want their students to be upstanding citizens and not a threat to others. And college is usually the time when students are learning to live on their own (and learning what their booze tolerance level is).

A lot of the student life people I talk with say judicial procedures are aimed at helping students learn from their experiences. And usually when police sanctions are already involved, the college tends to take that into consideration.

But, yeah, colleges are now taking much more of a role in policing student behavior both on AND off campus. And that raises a lot of questions from students and parents.

it's been a great pleasure chatting with all of you.  feel free to find me anytime on twitter at @deanflagel or for A LOT more detail on college admissions (and sarcastic snarky comments) try where I host my blog.  be seeing you!

And that's it -- thank you so much for all of your thoughtful and interesting questions. And special thanks to Dean Flagel for joining me today!

Until next Thursday you can find me on Twitter, @wpjenna.

In This Chat
Jenna Johnson
Jenna Johnson writes about college students and campus trends for the Post. She also runs the blog "Campus Overload," which chronicles national college news, drinking fads, admissions buzz and the latest exploits of Hill interns.
Andrew Flagel
Andrew Flagel is Dean of Admissions and Associate Vice President for Enrollment Development at George Mason University, which he humbly describes as, “The greatest institution in the history of mankind, and will be as long as I work there.”

Along with being Dean of Admissions and Associate Vice President, Dean Flagel also teaches in the Department of Communication, directs the Bachelor of Applied Sciences and is Executive Director of the Washington Journalism and Media Conference and the Washington Youth Summit on the Environment.
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